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Commentary: Why do we keep crying? Because Kobe Bryant reminded us of ourselves

Kobe Bryant was the following two things: A student of sport and a storyteller.

Mia O'Brien is a sports journalist at First Coast News.

"I'm not a Lakers fan."

"I'm not even a big basketball fan."

"So why do I keep crying?"

You and me both, dude. 

I work in sports journalism and report on college and professional basketball. Growing up, I watched the occasional NBA game -- never with the 162-game dedication of a New York Yankees season, but an astute observer, checking stats and keeping tabs.

Yet here I am, fighting back the waves of sadness and grief every few minutes for someone(s) I never met; every time a certain song lyric is sung on the radio; every time another story is shared on Twitter, Instagram, etc. 

The helicopter crash in the hills of Calabasas that claimed the lives of nine people Sunday morning -- including future Hall of Famer Kobe Bryant and his 13-year old daughter -- has sent more after-shocks throughout the world than any earthquake in California's history. 

I was never a devout Kobe Bryant fan, but I do know I am for a fact the following two things:

1. A student of sport

2. A storyteller

And as I have always secretly believed via my watch from afar -- and which has been proven true through the hundreds of anecdotes and obituaries shared in the past 48 hours -- so, too, was Kobe.

A student of sport. A storyteller. 

RELATED: Jimmy Fallon pays tearful tribute to Kobe Bryant on ‘Tonight Show’

Basketball is a team sport. So is life. You must share the ball. You can't 'win' without it -- "Mamba Mentality" or not. 

I believe that as he grew and self-reflection set in, Kobe Bryant found this principle to be one of the few, universal truths in our world. 

Sure, he didn't suddenly start passing up shots for someone else. You won't find Bryant in the Top-10 all-time list in assists. He doesn't even crack the Top-30. 

But he shared the game.

He shared it with the next generation. He shared it with athletes from other sports. He was the first one in line, ready to extend a helping hand in support of the WNBA and women's college basketball.

He shared the game with his daughters. 

Kobe Bryant would've fit right into Dr. Stephen Mosher's Sports Studies cohort at Ithaca College. I know this because I am a part of it. 

As part of the "Philosophical Perspectives of Sport" class, students are required to read the book Ishmael by Daniel Quinn. The underlying message of the book's Socratic conversation about the cultural myths of human supremacy?

"Share the golden ball."

It's how the game -- life -- keeps going on. 

RELATED: All 9 victims in the Kobe Bryant helicopter crash have been identified

As part of the curriculum's 'Senior Seminar' course, students are required to read another book: the philosopher Joseph Campbell's "A Hero's Journey." According to Campbell, beings go from one, worldly place to another -- a journey. By simply being born, we all have become heroes, and in turn, are all on our own journey.

This philosophy was the focus of my commencement address at Ithaca College in May of 2015. It remains a tenant of my view on life. 

It's also why my jaw dropped today when I learned that Kobe Bryant read the book cover-to-cover:

"This isn't a death to me so much as it is an evolution, a transformation, or as Joseph Campbell would say, 'the new normal.'" Bryant told ESPN's Ramona Shelburne prior to his retirement in April 2016. 

Shelburne recounts:

We talked often that year about Joseph Campbell and "The Hero's Journey." Kobe had read it cover to cover. Studied it deeply as both the author of his own legend throughout his 20-year career and the future author of what he hoped would be a second career as a legendary storyteller.

Kobe Bryant.

A student of sport. A storyteller. 

I happened to re-read Wright Thompson's profile of Michael Jordan on his 50th birthday last week prior to Bryant's passing. Once again, I was struck by the following passage:

"I … I always thought I would die young," he says, leaning up to rap his knuckles on the rich, dark wood of his desk.

He has kept this fact a secret from most people. A fatalist obsession didn't go with his public image and, well, it's sort of strange. His mother would get angry with him when he'd talk to her about it. He just could never imagine being old. He seemed too powerful, too young, and death was more likely than a slow decline. The universe might take him, but it would not permit him to suffer the graceless loss and failure of aging. A tragic flaw could undo him but never anything as common as bad knees or failing eyesight.

Kobe Bryant's NBA contemporary Tracy McGrady revealed on ESPN's 'The Jump' Monday that -- in his younger years -- Bryant had expressed similar sentiments. 

RELATED: Kobe Bryant takes a bow on commemorative TIME magazine cover

"Kobe spoke this," McGrady said. "He used to say all the time 'I wanna die young...I wanna be immortalized. I wanna have my career be better than Michael Jordan and I wanna die young.'"

But then Bryant had children and his playing days ended. 

"He didn't have that mindset [anymore]," McGrady said.

But I continue to struggle with the fact that Kobe Bryant was granted a mere, 3+ years of retirement to enjoy undivided devotion to his children and artistic pursuits. He wrote children's books. He was producing screenplays, a series for ESPN. He won an Oscar. All while picking his children up from school each day, coaching them by night. 

He was 41. 

Meanwhile, Michael Jordan, now retired for almost 20 years, remains unsatisfied to the point of bitterness at times. Jordan has not been able to, in Kobe and Joseph Campbell's words, "transform" into "a new normal."

Or as Thompson puts it: Jordan is too busy "thinking about 218." His playing weight, he continues:

He feels his competitiveness kick in, almost a chemical thing, and he starts working out, and he wonders: Could he play at 50? What would he do against LeBron? ...

"How can I enjoy the next 20 years without so much of this consuming me?" he asks, sitting behind his desk as his cellphone buzzes with trade offers. "How can I find peace away from the game of basketball?" 

Kobe Bryant became not only the first former athlete to win an Oscar: he was the first black man to ever win for "Best Animated Short." He described winning the Oscar as better than winning one of his five NBA championships.

“I heard a lot of people tell me, ‘What are you going to do when you retire?’ I want to be a writer and a storyteller,” Kobe explained. “I got a lot of, ‘That’s cute.’ I got that a lot. To be here right now and have a sense of validation, this is crazy.”

Kobe Bryant.

A student of sport. A storyteller.

I did text Ithaca College's Dr. Stephen Mosher on Monday morning, by the way. 

I noted that while, yes, the #MeToo Movement was now vocalizing and reminding the public of Bryant's 2003 sexual assault charges, I couldn't avoid the helplessness of knowing the world had lost a good man.

A student of sport. A storyteller. 

"I do think he spent the last 14 years trying to make amends for his horrific behavior and ruination of at least one young woman," Mosher responded. 

But Bryant tried to be better. And he was. 

That's more than we can say about so many athletes -- both current and retired. 

It's another topic I've struggled with in the past 48 hours: how opportunities can be handed an athlete's way, and somehow, by their own conscious intentions or not, they manage to mess it up -- whether it be their own health, their wealth, or their children's health. It's frustrating to see and report on day-in and day-out. 

Yet, here was a man who recognized he was fortunate to be getting this second chance, this second act, "a new normal." And he embraced it, spending time with his children. He didn't over-party, he went to church, and he made time to reach out. For him there was no end, only a new beginning. 

It's the reason we should remember Kobe Bryant not by his mistakes, but how he responded from them. That goes for every man and woman, too. 

I'll leave this stream of consciousness and philosophical musings with this. Having spoken with Bryant just last week, long-time Los Angeles Times columnist Bill Plaschke may go down as one of the last to have interviewed "Black Mamba" on record. 

Plaschke had e-mailed Bryant to ask for a quote about LeBron James passing Bryant for third all-time leading scorer in NBA history (James would go on to do so the night before Bryant's passing):

He emailed me back immediately. He always did... 

But then, in our 20-minute conversation, he showed a side of Kobe that I had not seen before.

The edge was gone. The arms were open. He urged acceptance of LeBron. He preached calm for Lakers fans. He said greatness wasn’t worth anything if you couldn’t share it.

Share the golden ball. 

If there was ever a question of the validity of Bryant's response, the out-pour on social media from players across the league confirms it. Bryant wasn't untouchable. He wasn't "immortalized.. better than Jordan." 

Kobe Bryant didn't need to be immortal to be remembered. He just needed to be there, and he was. He was there for the fans, for his teammates and for his family.

His dying act would prove to be simply taking his daughter to her basketball game.

Beyond our aforementioned similar interests, that's the other big reason Bryant's story keeps reverberating in my head. I don't have children, but I was one. And I loved sports. I needed sports -- just like Gigi and I am sure her teammates that lost their lives, too, at the tender, excruciating age of 13. In a special tribute to Gigi by the Associated Press, her thirst for sports knowledge is well-documented. 

“I try to watch as much film as I can,” Gigi said in an interview with Las Vegas CBS affiliate KLAS in 2019, when she and her dad attended the Las Vegas Aces’ WNBA opener. “More information, more inspiration.” 

She was even sounding like her dad. 

A student of sport. A storyteller. 

Mia O'Brien is a sports journalist at First Coast News.

Follow her on Twitter here.